Listen to this song by much-missed R&B stylist, and elementally gifted vocalist Etta James. It’s “Tell Mama”, a broiling example of full-on soul-power, charged with the fire of the blues, as taken from the album of the same name, Tell Mama, from 1968.
The record and song was something of a comeback for James, who first broke out in 1960 after some minor dents in the R&B charts previously. She had become sidelined by the middle of the decade by a series of personal problems, including a growing heroin habit. Her addiction to drugs would continue to be a personal millstone around her neck for many years.
Yet, the sheer power of her voice, and the uniqueness of the same, would remain undiminished. And this tune is my favourite of her songs, which is really saying something given the quality of her output.
The comeback itself was successful, with this song being top 10 on the R&B charts, and with the album being her first for almost half a decade to hit the Billboard 200. This tune would become something of a signiture hit, along with “At Last”, her version of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, and another cut off of the same LP – “I’d Rather Go Blind”.
Where her personal issues had some affect on her output, I think the greater issue was the fact that Etta James was not an easy artist to peg when it came to the style of music she was performing. James worked within a spectrum of styles, from blues, to jazz, pop, and soul music. She didn’t limit herself to any one tradition, and even recorded a country album later in her career. In this, she was certainly ahead of her time. Of course, there were many other ways in which Etta James demonstrated that she was an artist that was ahead of her time.
This song, and the record as a whole, was recorded at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama. This is a musical landmark location and soul music label that set a whole stream of Southern soul music into motion, with a sound that is distinct, and active even today. This helps to explain the Southern Soul feel on this track. But, really the central texture here is Etta James’ voice, now helped along by improved recording technology that had begun to emerge toward the end of the 1960s. The distortion of the past was greatly reduced, and for a singer with powerful pipes, the Etta James sound achieved unprecedented clarity here on this song as a result.
Something else is revealed in this song, too. That confidence and sheer femininity that had always been the nucleus of her performance is perfectly framed in this song. Her voice on this song is both nurturing and feminine, as well as unquestionably powerful and formidable at the same time. Not many singers, if any, could match her ability to balance these two forces in a performance. It would be this raw power that would make her reputation as one of the key influences to singers who would follow her path for decades after, from Janis Joplin (who sang this very song in 1970, during the Festival Express shows), to Amy Winehouse, to Adele.
Last month, Etta James passed on at age 73, after a decades-spanning career that began when she was just a teen. But, her influence even today remains.